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Barb Jungr: Smart, Sassy, Sexy

John Eyles By

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AAJ: What does it say on your passport?

BJ: I think it says "singer."

AAJ: Because your card says "singer writer," I notice.

BJ: I don't know why I did that. I think I was just being arsey. I do write, because I am writing The Fabulous Flutterbys [a children's story with music, to be staged at The Little Angel Puppet Theatre from May 2010] and I'm writing Mabel Stark [a musical theatre piece about a female tiger tamer] with Jonathan Cooper. Somebody said to me yesterday on [BBC Radio 4 programme] Woman's Hour I completely forgot that I've written kids' stuff before; I actually forgot my own life. That tells you a lot, doesn't it, really? It tells you all you need to know about what kind of person you're dealing with. I completely forgot that I'd written all of the music for three pantomimes. I completely forgot that I'd done the lyrics for Birmingham Stage Company's The Jungle Book. "Why are you doing children's theater?" "Because I just thought of it." I thought to myself today, "What? What were you thinking of?!" It is as if someone said to you, "Oh, and you can drive" and you went, "Yes, I know, isn't that amazing... Oh no, I've been driving for 25 years. What a surprise!" [Laughs] I can't believe that I'm such an idiot sometimes. Can't believe it.

AAJ: Over here [UK], you play jazz clubs, don't you?

BJ: Yes. The Vortex is pretty open-minded. I've played the 606 and Ronnie Scott's. I do the Dean Street Jazz Club and Boxford [Suffolk] and places like that. It is such a tricky thing this, isn't it—what is jazz?

AAJ: But over there [USA], you are "cabaret." Compare and contrast...

BJ: They're very different, they've got a different attitude. Over there, Frank Sinatra is cabaret; over there, Ella Fitzgerald is cabaret; anybody who plays at Vegas is cabaret. So, there is a different kind of understanding of the word, for a start. Over here, "cabaret" is often used pejoratively.

AAJ: Over there, do you only get into a jazz club if you're a horn player?

BJ: Not necessarily, actually. I like the places I have played. Um, but the whole "what is jazz?" thing is very interesting. My records are racked in jazz, that actually tells you exactly how categories are made. Categories are made for people to rack things in.

AAJ: But racking is other people defining you. How do you define you?

BJ: I would say that I was "singing." I actually think it is a real shame that there isn't just a thing that says "singers," "saxophones," "flutes" ... Because what is the real difference except repertoire between Oscar Peterson and Glenn Gould? They are piano players, they are playing the same instrument. Their repertoires are different. Then if it just about repertoire, what are we saying? That songs that actually came out of shows are jazz songs because that is the Great American Songbook; they were all written to be sung on Broadway in shows—that is what they were written for. So there is a very interesting thing that happens—with goalposts just swimming around according to how we want to use them. I don't really care anymore. What I care about for myself is that I try to get to as many people as I can, and I like as many people as possible to hear what I'm doing. That is what I like. But how you achieve that...you achieve it by every possible means. I don't think it is any more or less jazz than all sorts of other things that call themselves jazz but, in the final analysis...

AAJ: ... we are splitting hairs or dancing on the head of a pin.

BJ: It is tricky stuff. Simon maintains that it is difficult to call anything that has got vocals in it "jazz," and that jazz is actually instrumental music. That is a pretty good argument. Then you go, "Where would you put Al Jarreau in that?" There are always things that make you have to reframe it. And finally it is just terminology. It is problematic. Like my hygienist said to me, "I can't stand soul music." I went, "You're not talking about Marvin Gaye?" She went, "No, no. I'm not talking about Marvin Gaye. No." "What are you talking about then?" "You know, soul music." I can't remember who else I said, and she went, "Oh no, I don't mean them." And people often do that with jazz: "Oh, I can't stand jazz." And you'll go, "Do you like Billie Holliday?" And they'll go, "I like that." And you go, "A lot of people call that jazz." And they go, "Do they?"

AAJ: "Singer" is probably a good one to stick with, because then you avoid all of that.

BJ: It is, isn't it, because it's what you are doing, actually. I suppose it would be too much trouble in HMV—not that there are too many of them left these days.

AAJ: You probably achieve something when you are in "jazz vocals" because then you're all over the place, really.

BJ: What you want to be into is "Easy Listening," because who wants to be "Hard Listening?" Because those are the people that most people seem to know. Doris Day—easy listening. Great singer, Doris Day was a great singer. Dusty Springfield—easy listening. Great singer.

AAJ: It is the only place you'll find Sinatra, too.

BJ: That tells you something as well, doesn't it? I wonder whether those things will matter less and less as the shops go and everybody just shops online anyway. All you do is search online for it, and at that point it doesn't matter what it is categorized as; it is irrelevant.

AAJ: There is that catch-all category, "Beyond Category."

BJ: There is that, too. Where most things lie, I think.

AAJ: Increasingly in jazz, there is a huge melting pot in the middle, which is a lot of stuff.

BJ: Absolutely. You look at what is coming out of Sweden, all of that material that is coming out of Scandinavia. And the music coming out of places like South Africa. Those things that absolutely trash the boundaries.

AAJ: And the instrumentation—people's use of electronics now. It would have been outside of the big tent before. "You're not jazz if you use electronics." Increasingly, it's in there.

BJ: Yes. Totally. I totally agree.

AAJ: We've spoken about River, and you have touched on The Fabulous Flutterbys. What else is coming on down the line in your busy life?

BJ: Well, we think we are going to get a full commission on Mabel Stark Tiger Tamer, which is the story of Mabel Stark who was a female tiger tamer at the height of the American circus. Jonathan Cooper is writing the music; he and I collaborated when he did some work for me on the Elvis album, Love Me Tender (Linn Records, 2007) and I did some work for him on The Moon Behind the Clouds. We've been working together for years in this sort of swippy-swappy way, and then he came to me with this idea and we started working on it and we got commissioned by Greenwich, and then we've been commissioned by Royal and Derngate, Northampton and did a big workshop at the Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in November 2009 which was really fantastic. So I think we are going to go to full commission for that and hopefully a production in 2011. That is really exciting to me because Jonathan's music is fabulous. Difficult, but not in an arsey way. It is difficult in the sense that it is not simplistic, but it is melodic and it is really beautifully written. He is a beautiful composer and he is a great collaborator, because he is not easy because he is particular so between us we thrash a lot. That makes me have to work really hard. So, yes, we are working on that, and that's great. The hope is that I'll play the older Mabel in that, because there is an old Mabel and a young Mabel. And, much as I'd like to play the young Mabel, she has to be the Mabel who is 20 going into the ring... and even I thought that was going to be quite a leap for the audience [laughs]. So, that'll be next year, but that will be quite a lot of work this year, through the summer.

AAJ: I must say, I love your so-so hand gesture [used in concert to accompany the line "I'm young, I know" in "Love Hurts"]. That is so incredibly charming, honestly. I've seen you do it twice now, and it has given me a wry smile both times.

BJ: It's not as though people are idiots, they can tell. And also, I think, that at a certain point in your life you go, particularly as a performer, there is a rough area when you are too old to be Lady Gaga (if that were your intention) and you are not yet into your "dame" territory. It is sort of a no-person's land and quite a difficult area particularly for women, I would say. And then there's a place you get to, which I think I have come to really, where you have gone past that and you can go, "No. I really have been around the tree; you know I've been around the tree; I know I've been around the tree; we can take that as read. Therefore if I sing this, you know that I know what it means." Then people can go, "No. I get that" and they can be at any place in their lives and know that. Whereas I find it problematic if I go and see someone and I think, "You don't know what that means. I'm sorry, you've no idea what that means." You can't make that work then, you know. So, you can't kid an audience; they're not stupid. So that [gesture] tells them that I know that they know I know they know, and that they know that I know they know... Which is great. So we're all in the boat together.

AAJ: Yes. You are of an age but so is lots of the audience members. But you are an attractive and sexy woman, and you trade on that. You are electric on stage. You are; you know that, surely.

BJ: Well, you don't think about things like that.

AAJ: Would that be like thinking about walking upstairs, where you can't walk because you're thinking too much about it?

BJ: Absolutely, you can't think about that. Obviously, I think you do your best to present yourself in the best possible way. In that way, I don't think I was ever doing anything different. I don't like the slope on stage with your old trainers on—because I think if I've paid, the least you could do is to scrub up. It is the least you could do. I don't like it. I want people to have scrubbed up, whatever that means to them. I loved Amy Winehouse in concert recently; look at the amount of effort in that image; there is a lot of effort has gone into that. I might look as if it has just been knocked off in a dressing room, but it's not; a lot of thought and effort has gone into it. I'm really all for it.
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